On 27 April 1993, the Zambian national football team aircraft, en route to Senegal for a 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ qualifier, crashed into the sea 500 metres off the coast of Libreville, Gabon. There were no survivors. Except, that is, for captain Kalusha Bwalya, who had planned to make his own way to Senegal from Eindhoven, where he played his club football at the time.
Fast forward to 2 February 2012, and there was an altogether different mood in Libreville. Zambia had just won their first CAF Africa Cup of Nations title after a memorable penalty shoot-out victory over Côte d’Ivoire. Kalusha Bwalya, now president of the Zambian Football Federation, was struggling to take it all in. It is almost 20 years since the tragedy that took the lives of so many of his friends and team-mates, and the emotion was understandably overwhelming. “I thank God for having witnessed this moment,” Bwalya told FIFA.com. “I’ve been waiting since 1993 to see Zambia win the CAN. Now I’ve seen it.”
Read the complete interview with Bwalya by clicking on the Bwalya: Football has taken over Zambia link to the right.
Bwalya is heavily involved with the Chipolopolo, and, as he explained, takes his duties very seriously: “I must say that I’m a very tense as president, because I feel responsible for everything that happens. Sometimes I probably want to do too much!” The former international accompanied Zambia throughout their triumphant Cup of Nations campaign, but also shared in the sorrow of the 1993 tragedy.
Zambia’s group matches took place in Equatorial Guinea rather than Gabon, a fact that Bwalya believes contributed to the team’s success. “In order to play in Libreville, we first had to reach the semi-finals,” said the former PSV player. “That was a massive task. But in a way, it gave the lads renewed motivation.”
Something in the air
When Zambia eventually reached Libreville, Bwalya asked the whole group to travel to the beach where the tragic events of 1993 unfolded. “I wanted to establish a connection between the two teams – the past and the present,” he said. “I wanted a passing of the torch, for this year’s players to pay their respects to the 1993 generation. It was a very moving ceremony. I felt a connection with the families of the victims; something in the air,” added Bwalya, who scored 50 international goals for Zambia.
Bwalya, who was visibly moved by the proceedings, knows that in football, symbolic events can sometimes play an important role in galvanising a team. “I wanted my players to understand that they weren’t the first Zambians to have reached this stage,” he said. “And that some have given their lives in a very real sense. So I said: ‘Let's do them justice, and if we can lift the trophy for them, it’ll be fantastic.’ They wanted this title so much.”
There were a million people in the streets of the capital, flags in their hands. Even now we’re still finding it hard to believe that we’re the champions.
His words had the desired effect on everyone, including Zambia’s ebullient French coach, Herve Renard. “On so many occasions, Zambia have been in winning positions only to end up losing,” said Bwalya, before adding: “Because, as we say at home, ‘one of the boys fell asleep’. In Gabon, Herve’s job was to keep the players awake. And he certainly did; he was there on the bench, kicking every ball for 90 minutes. I loved that!”
On the day of the final, Bwalya took the opportunity to share his personal experience of Zambia’s Cup of Nations final defeat by Nigeria in 1994. “I said to them: ‘Play football and enjoy yourselves. Don’t be nervous. If ever there was a day that you should make the most of, this is it. You don’t realise it now, but in 20 or 30 years’ time you’ll understand what I’m trying to say. I know because I’ve been there,” he said.
The power of togetherness
Bwalya has no doubt whatsoever that it was a group effort that won the Cup of Nations for Zambia. “Our teams have always worked together, in harmony,” he said. Nothing captured that sense of unity better than the sight of coach Renard carrying the injured Joseph Musonda on to the pitch to celebrate the triumph with his team-mates. “Musonda is the oldest player in the national side,” Bwalya continued. “He still has the desire, and still has this wonderful spirit. When he got injured we were all sad for him and saw him cry. It was great to see the coach carrying him. But that’s exactly the kind of spirit we have in this team.”
Zambia’s team spirit has undoubtedly helped to achieve something remarkable, and has captivated an entire people. For Bwalya, already a hugely popular figure in his home country, the feeling is hard to put into words. “After the final, people went straight to Lusaka airport to wait for us,” he said. “They slept there [at the airport]. There were a million people in the streets of the capital, flags in their hands. Even now we’re still finding it hard to believe that we’re the champions.”
One thing is certain: the 1993 generation of Efford Chabala, Richard Mwanza, Kenan Simambe, Winter Mumba, Samuel Chomba, Whiteson Changwe, Robert Watiyakeni, John Soko, Eston Mulenga, Derby Makinka, Moses Chikwalakwala, Wisdom Mumba Chansa, Godfrey Kangwa, Numba Mwila, Kelvin "Malaza" Mutale, Timothy Mwitwa, Moses Masuwa, Patrick "Bomber" Banda, Godfrey "Ucar" Chitalu, Alex Chola and Wilson Sakala, wherever they are now, will have heard Zambia’s victory celebrations loud and clear. And they will have been delighted that Bwalya was still there to represent them.